How are the Germans reacting to Brexit? One of the most brilliant answers to this question was written long before the inquiry could be put in that form.
It was given by Ernst Jünger, a writer most celebrated for Storm of Steel, his account of serving in the German Army on the Western Front during the First World War, when he was wounded seven times and was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the highest Prussian decoration for valour.
During the Second World War, Jünger – a nationalist with no sympathy for the Nazis – served with the occupying forces in Paris. And it was here in August 1942, pondering the obduracy of British resistance in this period before Allied victories, that he wrote the following entry in his diary:
“Anglo-Saxon constancy in deteriorating circumstances – a puzzling and surprising feature, which one would rather have expected of the Prussians. However, the difference lies in the fact that the Englishman can take a considerably greater portion of anarchy. If both were pub landlords in run-down areas, the Prussian would insist on the rules being strictly observed in each room. This would enable him to maintain a certain superficial degree of order while the entire sub-structure was eaten away by nihilism. The Englishman, on the other hand, would initially tolerate the growing disorder, continue serving ale and taking money until he could stand no more – at which point he would go upstairs with some of his customers and beat up the others.”
To insist on the rules being observed in order to keep up appearances, while ignoring the decay of the entire sub-structure, is an accurate description of the official German attitude to the EU, and especially to the euro.
And the Englishman’s initial tolerance of disorder, followed by a violent reaction, describes the feelings which led to the referendum result, and to the recent deplorable outbursts of xenophobia.
David Cameron failed to understand the vein of anarchy which runs through our society: a force the Leave campaign mobilised with astonishing success.
Once the British voted to leave, the initial German instinct was to insist – in defiance of this revolutionary act – that the rules must continue to be upheld. Angela Merkel yesterday voiced in the Bundestag the general German view that there can be no “Rosinenpickerei”, or cherry-picking, by the British: we cannot be permitted to grab whatever privileges we want from the EU, while refusing to fulfil the obligations of membership.
But her pious statement concealed a major divergence between Merkel and other continental leaders. If it had been up to Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and his colleagues in the Brussels bureaucracy, no latitude would have been extended to London about when to submit the British application to leave the EU.
For as my old Berlin friend Tilman Fichter – a veteran Social Democrat, heavily involved in the 1968 protests – said of those EU functionaries: “They are really angry. They hate you.”
One reason why Merkel has been so successful is that she is an outsider – an East German – who never had her sympathies narrowed, or compromised, in the way that happened to those members of the West German political class who gained virtually no experience of life outside Bonn.
Merkel grew up, and made her first career as a scientist, in a society where the state was omnipotent and omnipresent, but also absurd and fragile, so that in 1989 East Germany collapsed as its citizens walked through the Berlin Wall.
As Moritz Schuller put it in the Tagesspiegel in Berlin on Monday, “Brexit is the first revolution in Europe since the Fall of the Wall.”
It has led to a power vacuum in London. People of modest means outside London, who feel their interests have too long been ignored and have ceased to believe the EU can be reformed, have instead decided to defy the powers that be.
So who now will take control of this revolution? In Fichter’s view – which is perhaps clarified by his distance from the UK – “the question is who is winning the race now between Labour and the Tories, to see which of them can be more successful in improving the lives of the small people outside London, in the North of England”.
Whether Boris Johnson or someone else becomes the next Prime Minister, the need will be for “a real leader of modernisation”, who ensures the creation of new industries with skilled jobs: the programme on which George Osborne was tentatively attempting, with his Northern Powerhouse, to embark.
The London commentariat is transfixed by the question of what kind of a deal we can do with Brussels. But this uprising was also against the domination of London, and the neglect of millions of low-paid, low-skilled workers in the provinces, left to compete against immigrants who undercut them.
That neglect, after the precipitate decline of heavy industry, is why Labour collapsed in Scotland, and elsewhere has been hollowed out. It has taken its traditional supporters for granted for too long.
So the success of this revolution will depend as much on economics as on politics – a point appreciated, as it happens, in the Harvard Business Review.
The most urgent task of Johnson, or whoever becomes the next Tory leader, will be to bring prosperity to the Brexit-voting classes. Unless that can be done, the referendum will not be the last of our revolutions, and the Conservative Party will soon go the way of Labour.